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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
or on Mastodon @balkandave@mastodon.scot, or Threads @davewatson1683

Thursday 28 December 2017

Armies of the Italian Wars of Unification 1848-70 (1)

This is the first volume in an Osprey MAA two part series on the wars of unification by Gabriele Esposito.

The emphasis here is on the armies. Firstly the army of Piedmont in the 1848 and 1859 wars. Then the unified Italian army after 1861. And finally the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies between 1848 and 1861. Each chapter deals with the organisation and weapons of the armies. As you would expect from Osprey, there are plenty of illustrations and very nice colour plates by Giuseppe Rava. Lots of character in the poses, some of the best I have seen in an Osprey book, and I own hundreds!

There is a very short chronology, but if you are not familiar with the wars these armies fought in, I would recommend Christopher Hibbert's 'Garibaldi and his Enemies'. A very readable one volume history.

I collected 15mm 'Principles of War' armies for these wars many years ago and this book was an opportunity to dust them down. I used my current favourite 19C rules 'The Men Who Would Be Kings' and they worked well. I used a 1859 Piedmont 24pt force on the right against an Austrian force on the left. 

From memory the figures mainly come from Frei Korps range, some in their early period with the soft metal - hence the absent bayonets and sometimes worse!

I have visited the Austrian quadrilateral fortresses in northern Italy and the battlefield at Solferino is well worth a visit. In addition to the set piece battles, actions involving Garibaldi and his Red Shirts in Sicily and the Alps are very suitable for the TMWWBK rules. The Austrian army of the period is covered in Osprey MAA 323 and MAA 329.

Tuesday 26 December 2017


My pre-Christmas reading has been a new book on the Albanian hero Scanderbeg (or George Castriota) by A.K.Brackob, published by Histria Books.

2018 will be the 550th anniversary of Scanderbeg's death. It was by any standard an extraordinary life, and not well known outside Albania where his standard is the national flag to this day. From 1443 to 1468 he led the resistance to the Ottomans in Albania, at a time when they were the dominant military force in the Balkans. 

To understand his achievements you have to appreciate the geography of Albania and the author spends some time describing the mountains that protect the country's small coastal plain. It may also have been its weakness, as it meant the country was slow to create a more centralised feudal state that might have been able to unite to resist invasion. Internal division and Venetian administration in coastal ports, combined to weaken the defences.

Scanderbeg himself was a hostage in Istanbul from an early age after his father's rebellion against the Ottomans. Albanian's have historically worn their religion lightly and the country had Catholic, Orthodox and Islamic adherents. Scanderbeg's father John Castriota, converted to Islam and regularly switched his religion depending on his current allies. The young George was a hostage in the court of Sultan Murad II and was educated in the palace school. He later converted to Islam and took the name Scanderbeg.

He probably gained military experience on campaigns with the Ottoman army in Anatolia and certainly remained loyal to the Sultan during his father's revolt in the 1430's. His elder brother served with the Venetian's. He was appointed the governor of important Albanian castles and began his preparations for revolt.

The Ottoman defeat at Nis in 1443 was the opportunity to return to Albania and capture, by ruse, the  key castle of Kruje (Croya in the book) in central Albania. Abandoning Islam, he forged a loose alliance of the Albanian lords in central Albania in the League of Alessio, although his authority as general of the army was limited. The north remained under Venetian control and south largely remained loyal to the Ottomans, where the Timar system was in operation.

Commanding a force that rarely exceeded 10,000 men, he fought a guerrilla war against the Ottomans, using the topography effectively. He defeated the Ottomans in battles at Torvioll and Otonete.

The Venetian's became wary of his growing power and this led to war in in 1447. After Scanderbeg defeated them, a peace treaty was signed, although they continued to assist the Ottomans with supplies. Scanderbeg aimed to support John Hunyadi's invasion and was only some 20 miles from joining him at the second Battle of Kosovo.

He survived the epic siege of Kruje in 1450 and received modest support from the Pope and other western states, particularly Naples. Although his power base at home was weakened by internal divisions. He survived these and defeated the Ottomans several times, even finding the time to lead an expedition in Italy in 1460 in support of Naples.

The castle at Kruje today

Mehmed himself led a huge Ottoman army into Albania, but yet again failed to capture Kruje in 1466. He did capture other areas and devastated the country, which suffered serious depopulation. Scanderbeg died of malaria in January in 1468 while trying to put together yet another coalition. While some resistance continued, the Ottomans gradually extended their control over all of Albania. 

Scanderbeg is credited with holding back the Ottoman advance into Italy, which required an Albanian base. One of many admirers was the British General James Wolfe who wrote that he "excels all the officers, ancient and modern, in the conduct of a small defensive army".

The author covers all of these events, with a fast paced narrative. He pulls together the limited sources as few have done since the classic history by Bishop Fan Noli in 1947. Although Harry Hodgkinson's 1999 book is also worth a read.

You can't avoid the great man in any visit to Albania, not least in the main square in Tirana. There is a fine museum in Kruje and the castle is well preserved as well. 

His tomb is in the cathedral ruins at Lezha.

For the wargamer, this is a challenging medieval army to use, even with western allies. It requires the right terrain and tactics to make best use of the Albanian light horse. I have armies in 15mm and 28mm, but haven't won with them very often. Despite my reading, little of the great man's skill has brushed off on me!

Tuesday 19 December 2017


This is the third in the Aelfraed series from historical fiction author Griff Hosker. I haven't read the first two in the series, but was, unsurprisingly, attracted to the book by its Balkan content.

Our hero is one of two housecarls forced to flee England after the Norman contest. They first visit Denmark to seek support from the Danish king. Here they gain some companions and set off on a perilous journey down Russian rivers to Constantinople. They arrive after fighting off several Pecheneg attacks on their boat.

In Constantinople, they are rejected by the Viking dominated Varangian Guard, and join a unit of Saxon mercenaries. They fight against a Norman rebel in Anatolia and are quickly promoted by the Byzantine commander Alexios. After more than a few bouts with the complexity of Byzantine politics, Alexios becomes Emperor with their help. They end up commanding the Varangian Guard.

Their old enemies the Normans are never far away, and they are defeated at Dyrrachion (1081) by Robert Guiscard. However, they recover to push the Normans out of the Balkans in the final battle in which our hero... well I won't spoil the ending.

The author keeps to what we know of the history, largely the memoirs of Anna Comnena, albeit adding in these two redoubtable Saxons. There certainly were Saxons in the Varangian Guard of the period, if not in quite as significant roles!

This is really well written with all you would expect from the genre. Plenty of action, treachery and intrigue. Recommended.

And let's have some eye candy, with 28mm Varangian guardsmen from my Byzantine army of the period.

Monday 18 December 2017

Armies of the Greek-Italian War 1940-41

An Osprey title on a Balkan theme is a no brainer for me - I wonder if you can do a standing order! Phoebus Athanassiou has tackled the Greek-Italian War of 1940-41, or more accurately, the armies of the conflict.

There is a very brief overview of the war, but this is not a narrative history. For that I would recommend  John Carr's 'The Defence and Fall of Greece 1940-41', or for an Italian perspective, Mario Cervi 'The Hollow Legions'. I also wrote a short article on the war for the SOTCW Journal some years ago.

Both armies are covered in some detail, including the organisation, uniform and equipment. As you would expect from Osprey, it is profusely illustrated with period photographs and colour plates by Peter Dennis. The Italian plates show a much greener uniform than I have painted my figures, but there were many shades of the standard uniform colour used, so you can justify some variety.

Air and naval forces are given a quick overview as are allies and auxiliaries. Matthew Gillingham's 'Perilous Commitments' is good on the British and Commonwealth involvement. I have a unit of the Albanian auxiliaries, which were attached to most Italian divisions, even if there contribution is debatable.

Even by the standards of the Italian leadership during WW2, this was a badly led offensive. Six months of bitter fighting in the Albanian and Pindus mountains resulted in some 90,000 Italian casualties. As the author concludes, the average Italian conscript fought bravely under the most gruelling conditions, betrayed by the shortcomings of his command.

The Greek army fought well and not only stopped the Italian forces, but pushed them back into Albania. Despite plenty of obsolete equipment, the Greek's were well placed to defeat the Italian's in the mountains. They still suffered some 60,000 casualties and many more in the subsequent German invasion and occupation.

I have armies for this conflict in 15mm and 28mm, and it is a period I regular return to on the wargame table. I have also walked over the battlefields and can recommend the museum at Kalpaki. Even in the summer you can quickly see how tough it must have been for the soldiers of both armies.

Greek infantry in 28mm - Burns Miniatures

Italian's in 15mm

Greeks in 15mm

Sunday 10 December 2017

Serbian Army in the Great War

The centenary of the First World War has inspired a large number of books on the campaigns and armies of the conflict. However, very few cover the early campaigns between the Austro-Hungarian and Serbian forces, and fewer still cover the Serbian army in any detail. This is just one reason why Dusan Babac's book is so welcome.

The author starts with a decent overview of the main campaigns. If you are looking just for a narrative history of the campaigns, then Andrej Mitrovic, 'Serbia's Great War, is probably the best option. What Babac gives the reader is a much better understanding of the Serbian army - its preparedness for war, organisation and equipment.

The real strength of this book are the many illustrations, in fact you could almost call it an illustrated history. It is full of contemporary photographs and pictures from museum collections. Uniforms, weapons, equipment, standards and decorations are covered in detail.

If there are any faults, the absence of decent maps makes it difficult for the general reader to follow the ebb and flow of the campaigns. An understanding of Serbian topography helps explain the challenges faced by the Serbian general staff in marshalling their limited resources. The Serbian army performed admirably and the author's patriotism oozes from the pages of this book, even if, on occasions, at the price of objectivity.

However, these are minor quibbles. This is the must read study of the Serbian army of WW1 and I will be dipping into it regularly.

Wargamers of this period will probably be familiar with Babac's Osprey book 'Armies of the Balkans 1914-18'. I have 15mm and 28mm Serbian armies of this period.

Monday 4 December 2017

Rommel - in the desert

As was obvious from my review, I am pretty enthusiastic about Sam Mustafa's latest rules for WW2.

So much so that I have invested in a new mousemat, from those very helpful guys at Deep Cut Studio. Taking their Steppes finish, which covers a lot of arid terrain, I asked them to overprint 10cm squares. Well to be honest, by mistake I asked for 10mm squares, but fortunately spotted my error when they sent a sample photo for approval. Close call that one!

The lighting in this photo makes the mat look a bit pinkish, which it isn't. This picture from the Deep Cut site is a better representation of the colour.

You can see the discreet lines below, which are even less obvious from a distance.

The game was early war Italian v British, about divisional scale in these rules. The Brits made the first move, making a big sweep to the Italian right flank. Not quite enough ops dice to catch the Italians out, and they responded in kind. That left a slugging match, in which the British Crusaders and Cruisers came out on top.

The models are 10mm, based on 30mm squares, originally for Spearhead.

The mat can of course also be used for 'To The Strongest' games in 15mm.